MIAMI—The Cubs came to Florida with 10 victories in their last 12 games and a chance to close out the division race against the last-place Marlins so they could rest some of their regulars for the playoffs.
But after getting swept out of Miami with Thursday's 6-4 loss to Florida, the Cubs ensured some unwanted drama in their final series of the season in Cincinnati.
With Milwaukee losing to San Diego 9-5 on Thursday night, the Cubs retained their two-game lead in the National League Central with three games left. Their magic number dropped to 2.
What do the Cubs have to say to the folks back home in Chicago who are tiptoeing across window ledges with visions of 1969 dancing in their heads?
"It happens," losing pitcher Steve Trachsel said. "It's not like we didn't try. They're going to say what they're going to say, no matter what. We can't worry about that. We have three more games to worry about."
In what probably was his final appearance as a Cub, Trachsel allowed five runs in 4 1/3 innings to put his teammates in a 5-1 hole they couldn't escape. A belated comeback fell short, and Ryan Dempster gave up a two-out insurance run in the eighth, the sixth time in his last eight outings the Cubs' closer has been scored on.
Is it possible the Cubs don't have the killer instinct that separates great teams from ordinary ones?
"I don't think it's that," manager Lou Piniella said. "I think it's that we go through periods when we just don't get the job done. Why do you see us as only [seven] games above .500? We're not a team that does it all the time.
"If we did it all the time, we would be at 92 or 93 wins. So you're going to have some times when you do it and some times when you don't. I'm just being perfectly honest. We got three games here where we just didn't hit with men on base."
The Cubs went 3-for-12 with men in scoring position Thursday after going 1-for-8 Wednesday. That's not a sign of a playoff-ready team.
"Look, it's a team that's good enough to win the division," Piniella said. "And we're in position to do just that. We go to Cincinnati, we win three in a row, and all this talk here is [moot]."
After Aramis Ramirez's RBI single in the first put the Cubs on the board, Trachsel gave it right back in the bottom of the inning. An RBI double by .212-hitting Alejandro De Aza gave Florida the lead in the second, and Hanley Ramirez's sacrifice fly two batters later made it 3-1.
Trachsel was removed in the fifth after serving up a one-out homer to Ramirez and walking Dan Uggla, who eventually scored on Miguel Cabrera's double that nicked the foul line in right.
"Had a foul ball that went for a double and cost us a run," Trachsel said. "Other than that, they did a good job manufacturing [runs]."
Cabrera's throwing error in the sixth opened the door to a three-run inning, and the Cubs pulled within a run on Alfonso Soriano's RBI double. But Jacque Jones struck out with the bases loaded in the seventh, and Ryan Theriot grounded into an inning-ending double play on the first pitch he saw in the eighth.
Chicago native Cliff Floyd was 12 when he watched the Cubs fall apart in the 1984 National League Championship Series, and he knows what Cubs fans are going through right now. Floyd had some straightforward advice for them.
"Keep praying, keep watching," he said. "You never know what you're going to get. Hopefully we'll do it for them. They've been with us this far, so they might as well ride it out. Everybody knew it was going to go toward the end. Here we are."